By GARY SHELTON
When the demons were finally beaten back, when the 108-year wait was finally over, when the rain had passed, when the comebacks had been beaten back, when the Cubs – of all people — had outlasted Cleveland and finally become World Series champions, Joe Maddon allowed himself a smile.
He embraced his coaches. He watched his players cavort in the thrill of success. He shared a moment with Ben Zobrist, who was with him in Tampa Bay. Zobrist was MVP of the Series, which will probably leave Tampa Bay fans with a bit more wistfulness.
This is what it looks like when a leader guides his team through the desert. When he finally ends 108 years of frustration. When he killed the billy goat and ended all of the other curses. This is what it looks like in Maddon’s rear-view mirror. This was the community where Joe learned his trade, after all. So today, are you pleased for Joe or annoyed the Rays wouldn’t pay him? Or both.
Maddon reached immortality Wednesday night. He finally ended the eternal wait. He finally removed the shadow from over his franchise. He is golden now in the city of Chicago. There will be statues built bearing his likeness. There will be streets named after him. Schools, maybe. He is up there with Mike Ditka and Phil Jackson and Joel Quenneville, up there with Dick Butkus and Michael Jordan and Bobby Hull.
“Pretty incredible,” Maddon said. “We never quit. I’m proud of the attitude.”
How can you not feel for Maddon? How can you not be appreciative of the time he spent here? How can you not wish him well?
* * *
He drove people crazy while he was here. Perhaps that is the lasting legacy of Joe Maddon.
He tinkered endlessly with his lineup. He referred to runs as “points.” He stood by Derek Shelton. Even worse, he stood by B.J. Upton. He was endlessly sunny. He talked in weird equations. He drank wine. He talked about swing planes. He brought penguins into the clubhouse.
And he won.
Not enough, ever enough, but he won.
He was the best baseball manager ever had, better than Lou, better than Hal, better than Kevin. Between the muscle cars and the music reference and the literature and the unflagging optimism, he was the stereotypical man for all seasons. There were a great many things darting through the mind of Maddon, but especially baseball.
There was a cockiness to Joe, too. You would repeat something that you had heard from a fan, or on a radio show, or in an email, and he would get this bemused look on his face. He would listen, and he would smile, and he would shrug. Then he’d tell you, in so many words, that the fan didn’t know, that he didn’t have access to all the scouting reports or all the inside knowledge. He didn’t care what some guy learned when he was in high school. It was like Einstein listen to people do their multiplication tables.
That drove fans crazy, too.
He was right, of course. The average guy in the average seat can study all the Whip and War stats he wants, but he can’t match knowledge with a three-time manager of the year. Most managers — and coaches — grin and invited the fan to play along, the way that Bruce Springsteen grins when you tell him how you sing along in the shower.
Still, 162 is a lot of games, and it’s a lot of decisions to try to guess along with. And so, to many, he was Merlot Joe. He went from being the reason the Rays won to the reason he did not.
One day, I asked Joe a question he still remembers — he brought it up to Marc Topkin of the Times in a recent interview. I asked if he thought some of his fans were weary of wining 90 games a year without winning the World Series. And, frankly, some had. We saw it with Tony Dungy, too; nothing frustrates the populous more than being good without being great.
They are two of a kind, Dungy and Maddon. Like Dungy, Maddon ended the bad old days. He cleared out the lethargy from the clubhouse and he imported standards. He never really could match rosters with his opponents, but he won. And he never apologized for his constant good mood.
“It’s so easy to be negative,” Maddon once said. “But I don’t know of any situation that ever became better without a positive attitude. To go out and heap more pressure and more negativity on a group of people seems to invite what you had in the past.
“We’ve got our swords. We’re ready to kill the dragon.”
And he did. He lopped his head off and posed on its chest. The best years the Rays ever had were those Maddon years. Nothing else is close.
Now he is a champion. To some of us, managing a big payroll team seems a lot different from a small one. But Joe treats it as the same game. Stay positive. Trust your hunches. And win.
He was always a man of good humor, Maddon. He would talk for hours about Springsteen and the author Pat Conroy and the Cyrkle and Mark Twain and growing up as a catcher and his love of the old St. Louis Cardinals football team and philosopher Albert Camus. He once walked Josh Hamilton with the bases loaded (and won). He once ejected an entire umpiring grew.
As a writer who spent time around him, he was terrific to the media. He always had time, and he loved challenging questions, and he didn’t mind being criticized. For instance, there was that great series against the Red Sox where James Shields was ejected for throwing at Coco Crisp. I thought the Rays should have served their revenge cold — later in the season — and kept Shields around to win the game. Joe listened to what I obviously intended to write. He explained himself — he thought it was important for a team trying to establish itself to strike quickly — but told me I should write whatever I thought.
It’s funny. Over the years, I’ve run into dozens of writers who all had a Maddon story of grace and humor and wisdom. Above all else, Joe Maddon is a good guy.
And now he is a champion.
All is right with the world.
(Gary Shelton is one of America’s most-honored and distinguished sports journalists. Gary has been named the Associated Press Sports Editors’ No. 1 national sports columnist twice, has been a top five finisher five ot,her times and was chosen by sports editors in the top 10 columnists eight different years. He has been selected Florida’s Sportswriter of the Year six times. He was a columnist with the St. Peterburg/Tampa Bay Times for 25 years after joining the newspaper from The Miami Herald. Gary has covered 29 Super Bowls and 10 Winter and Summer Olympics, The Masters, the World Series, the Stanley Cup Finals and national championship in college football and basketball — all on multiple occasions over the past four decades. He currently has his own website — garysheltonsports.com — blanketing all sports in the Tampa Bay area. He is among the most creative and thoughtful and opinionated, and hard-headed, columnists you’ll ever read. And funny. And one of the good guys. Don’t ever miss his columns, interviews and stories on garysheltonsports.com. Gary has agreed to be an occasional contributor to woodypaige.com.)